When we first moved into our old farmhouse in Heath in November of 1979, I cooked in what the previous owners called ‘the summer kitchen’ although there was no other kitchen. It was small and oddly shaped because of the stairway that went up to a loft/attic space. The 1930s era stove was on the north wall next to a small window that looked up the hill, across the field to an old apple tree.
When the wind blew through the many drafty windows, that first bitter winter the view out the kitchen window was not inspiring. But, in the spring, when the apple tree burst into glorious bloom I remembered all the reasons we had moved to the country.
We don’t actually harvest many apples from the tree on the hill. One visitor said it might be a Baldwin, and Baldwin apples were a common variety in our area. When you drive through town you can still see the remnants of old orchards, and the promise of one new orchard growing a whole variety of apples.
I no longer look out of that particular window when I am cooking, but the view to the north is one of my favorites in the spring.
Apple trees bloom early in the season and are welcome and valuable for that very reason. We planted some dwarf apple trees that are now about 15 feet tall. We planted heirloom varieties as well as Freedom and Liberty, disease resistant hybrids. Only the Liberty and Freedom survived tenants we had one year. They had horses, and the horses seemed to be very fond of romping beyond fences and of apple bark.
I confess that we have not taken very good care of the surviving trees which is a tribute to their hardiness and disease resistance, the very reasons we chose them. Liberty and Freedom produce medium sized red apples that ripen in September and are good for eating and cooking. Given good conditions they can be stored for up to five months. We harvest too few apples to store, but we get some good eating.
A friend gave us a Sargent crabapple, a small ornamental tree with good disease resistance, which we planted in the center of the Sunken Garden about 15 years ago. In the spring the tight red buds make the tree seem to blush; when the flowers open the tree is a cloud of blossom. I have not pruned it to the spare sculptural shape that many people manage, but it remains a small tree not much more than eight feet tall with a spread of twice that. It produces tiny red fruits that are of no use in the kitchen, but the birds like them.
Even though I do not rigorously control the tree, it takes a lot of pruning. I do what I consider a radical pruning every spring, but there is more to do the following spring. They can be given another pruning in summer if you wish, but I haven’t done that.
Sargent crab, like other crabapples, is not fussy. It needs full sun, but the soil can be heavy or loamy, acid or alkaline. It prefers well drained soil, but my Sargent crab thrives in a very wet spot.
The Sargent crab is a small crabapple, but there are many other beautiful crabapples most of which reach a height of between 15 and 25 feet. They bloom in many shades. SugarTyme is one of the most popular of these ornamental trees. It has white spring blossoms, green foliage and red fruits.
Royalty crabapple is notable for the deep reddish foliage and dark red flowers, while Red Splendor has reddish foliage but pink blossoms and red fruits that do not fall off the tree. No litter.
Profussion is a larger tree, reaching a height of 25 feet, with at least as wide a spread. The flowers are purple-red with bronze-y green foliage. As you might guess from its name, this variety is noted for the profusion of bloom.
For those who like the grace of a weeping tree there is Red Jade. This crab grows to 12 feet and just as wide – a lovely pink umbrella of a tree that bright red fruits in the fall.
If you are looking for a crabapple that you can actually eat, Whitney is the choice. Whitney’s one to two inch fruits are yellow and red, perfect for making jelly or a spiced pickle.
One stunning way to use crabapples would be as an allee, planting them on either side of drive or road. Here in New England we are aware of the beauty of magnificent maples along old roads, a kind of municipal allee. Allees of large deciduous trees, or graceful birches have been used on great estates leading up to stately homes. I think an allee planted with a humbler tree, a blooming tree, is a beautiful way to lead up a long drive to a house in the country.
Allees remind us of the power of massing a single plant. That power is all the more dramatic when you are talking about trees.
Whether you want fruit to eat, food for the birds, or a big spring bouquet, there is an apple tree for you.
Between the Rows April 24, 2010